The Nightingale

The Nightingale - Kristin Hannah

Sometimes I'll finish a bad book and be ok; I'm perfectly capable of stoicism regarding such things. Other times...argh. I get angry. Angry is how I feel about this one.


I'll begin by saying that there are a vast number of readers who will love The Nightingale. They'll tell you how great it is. They'll mention that the novel is set in France during World War II and features two sisters, two daring heroines who demonstrate their bravery in different ways. And truly, I do admire the fact that this story will have many readers googling for more information on the Vichy government in France and talking in their book clubs about the degree to which France either resisted or was complicit in the death of 90,000 French Jews during the war. 
When an author chooses to traverse this territory, it carries with it a certain special burden. First of all, many hundreds of books have explored this era, and done so movingly and skillfully, so that any new endeavor must offer something fresh to the reader. Secondly, it must be understood that the reader is going to be shown some very painful experiences - very real experiences, suffered by millions of Europeans during the war. When you carry your reader over sacred ground, the author's burden becomes great. I remember reading how frightened Stephen Spielberg was in filming Schindler's List, knowing how important the film was to so many people. He knew he could not disappoint these people with something cheap or trite. 
The first half of The Nightingale is fine, and I had hopes for the second half, but things devolved quickly. Something about the last few chapters felt rushed. One of the truly annoying and cliched elements that sunk this story for me was the completely unnecessary, pandering "present reflection" structure, used in other novels like The Notebook and Water for Elephants, in which an older person looks back on his or her earlier life during which most of the story takes place. We then return back to the older person to check in on her from time to time, as some sort of subplot unfolds in this world of the present, be it death, illness, a party, a reunion, etc. I have a loathing for this style because of the way it tends to sentimentalize its subject matter, and boy, does it ever here in this novel - we literally have a woman in her attic opening an antique wooden chest as the story begins. Worse yet is what this does to the ending, which turns into the most puerile schmaltz I've read in months. Other than this structural issue, the main thing that lets down the story is the prose of Kristin Hannah - it is simple, unimaginative, lacking the layers of necessary insight that lifts an interesting story idea into a place of literature. I need more from a book like this, and I think her readers deserve more.